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'Show Boat' Steams On, Eternally American

It's been more than eight decades since Show Boat -- the seminal masterpiece of the American musical theater — premiered on a stage in Washington, D.C. Now the sprawling classic is back, in a lush production put on by the Washington National Opera.

Based on Edna Ferber's epic best-selling novel, Show Boat was nothing like the frothy musicals and scantily clad Broadway revues of its time. Sure, the story is about a traveling showboat that plays to audiences along the Mississippi River, but the plot focuses on serious subjects: racial injustice, alcoholism, abandonment.

Joe (Morris Robinson) is the dockworker role written for the legendary bass-baritone Paul Robeson; his song "Ol' Man River" is one of the American musical theater's most enduring creations.
Scott Suchman / Washington National Opera
Washington National Opera
Joe (Morris Robinson) is the dockworker role written for the legendary bass-baritone Paul Robeson; his song "Ol' Man River" is one of the American musical theater's most enduring creations.

Panoramic in scale, the show spans 40 years, from 1885 in the South — not long after the Civil War — to the Roaring '20s in Chicago. And displayed in all their glory are some of the most beautiful love songs of the 20th century: "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Make Believe," "Bill."

Show Boat made musical-theater history, pioneering the merging of music and plot, integrating them for the first time to provide a seamless transition from scene to song. Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, just 31 years old, worked closely with composer Jerome Kern to replicate Ferber's sweeping narrative. In a 1958 interview released on vinyl by MGM Records, he explained how he used the Mississippi itself as the thread that would hold all the plot elements together.

"I thought that we lacked something to make it cohesive," Hammerstein told interviewer Arnold Michaelis. "I wanted to keep the spirit of Edna's book, and the one focal influence I could find was the river, because she had quite consciously brought the river into every important turn in the story. The Mississippi. So I decided to write a theme — a river theme."

That theme, of course, became "Ol' Man River," one of the most primal American melodies ever sung.

'Misery' Restored, And Threaded Throughout The Show

Director Francesca Zambello, who pushed and prodded to get the current revival staged at the Kennedy Center, says she was drawn to the show because of the timeless issues it dramatizes — not least that key underlying theme of race, embodied in the show by Julie, the showboat's star performer.

"Julie is the fulcrum of the show, because she brings the dramatic issue that changes everything," Zambello says.

Secretly biracial, but "passing" — living publicly as a white woman — Julie has married a white man. That makes their relationship a crime in Mississippi, and in much of the rest of the country besides.

No surprise, then, that even before Julie is found out and forced to leave the showboat, the company's mother figure, who's in on her secret, senses trouble. "Misery's comin' around," sings Queenie, the showboat's cook, in a gorgeously melancholy melody that was cut from the original production for time.

"The theme of 'Misery' you hear not only with Queenie and all the women working, but it also weaves its way underneath the dialogue every time Julie speaks after that," Zambello points out. "It becomes her sadness, and her secret."

There are no U.S. laws against interracial marriage anymore; they were struck down in 1967 by the Supreme Court's decision in Loving vs. Virginia. But as Show Boat plays at the Kennedy Center this month, the court — just a couple of miles away — is considering questions of same-sex marriage, affirmative action and voting rights, while Congress focuses on how we as a nation treat immigrants.

"To do this kind of work that has such deep social underpinnings to it, and really speaks about social change, is I think rare in music theater," Zambello says. "If you wrote this musical today, I'm not sure that it would get on."

A Show For The Ages; An Ending For Our Era

Show Boat is still first and foremost entertainment, of course; it's spectacle, with joyous dancing, aching romance and the pathos of love found, lost, and found again.

Well, perhaps. In Zambello's production, the ending isn't quite as unmistakably happy as in the original; it's more ambiguous. "You are love," the tragic hero still sings as he embraces his daughter after a long separation, "here in my arms where you belong." But will the child's mother, abandoned in poverty decades before, welcome him back this time?

In the meantime, though, hearts flutter, and audience members hold hands or reach for their handkerchiefs. And they leave the theater humming the many songs that remain standards well after the show that made them popular has been forgotten by younger generations. As Zambello points out, most audiences don't know the context of those songs anymore.

"And most of them really have a strong dramatic context, and a meaning to them," she stresses.

It was a meaning that was all too apparent to the first audience that saw Show Boat in 1927. Those patrons sat in stunned silence when the final curtain came down; only after a moment or two did they begin to applaud.

Today, the themes of Show Boat are more painful than shocking for a modern audience. But then history is painful; the actions and attitudes dramatized in this American classic remain part of our national genetic code.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The audio of this story incorrectly identifies the lyricist as Oscar Hammerstein. It was actually Oscar Hammerstein II.
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.